The Cottager | Deepdene: How a British ambassador's career ended in Lenox ...
LENOX — On a crisp autumn morning, 150 "summer cottagers" breakfasted together at Erskine Park, the summer home of George and Marguerite Westinghouse. Among the guests were many ambassadors, including the popular Sir H. Mortimer Durand, affectionately known as "Sir Morty," who had spent the last three summers leading the cricket team, organizing gymkhanas at Tanglewood and playing rousing games of golf.
In the coming weeks, the cottagers would close up their summer homes for the winter, but the Durands would not be returning to their rented cottage, Deepdene, the following year. In fact, the day after the "largest entertainment of the Berkshire Hunt series," Durand would receive a letter stating his services were no longer required and his family was to return to Great Britain.
It was an unexpected turn of events for Durand, according to author Cornelia Brooke Gilder, who related the tale of the British ambassador's political demise during a talk held at Deepdene in February. Gilder, who includes a chapter on Durand in "Edith Wharton's Lenox," was able to locate his diary and a photo album of pictures from Lenox among his papers at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of London.
In his diary, according to Gilder, he wrote: "I have received [British Foreign Secretary] Edward Grey's letter. I am told that I am to be removed and that my career is over. I must try to take it like a gentleman for the sake of my wife and children.
"It is a great blow to me. I feel it is hard, that an honorable service of more than 30 years should end in meritorious disgrace. I'm not to have an ambassador's pension. It will mean real poverty. My beloved [horse] Lancer will have to be shot."
Durand, born in India, was the son of Sir Henry Durand, lieutenat governor of Punjab. He followed in his father's footsteps, entering the British civil service in his 20s. He rose through the ranks quickly and in 1884 was appointed to the Afghan Boundary Commission and would carve out the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan — a border, the Durand Line, which is still controversial to this day.
"He brought soccer to India, polo to Iran and would become very involved in cricket in Lenox," Gilder said. "He was an eminent British civil servant, elevated to ambassador to Spain His whole career was in these postings."
When he arrived in the U.S., Lenox was already the summer home of many ambassadors. In 1904, Baron Speck von Sternberg, the German ambassador, and his wife, called Deepdene home. But in 1905 and 1906, it was the British Embassy from May through November.
"He would observe the natives by having lunch with the Fosters, the Sloanes, the Whartons and tea with the Goodmans. He wrote about a dull, magnificent function at the Westinghouses, which fascinates me because nobody talks about going to the Westinghouses," Gilder said. "Surely, Durand knew a lot about dull, magnificent functions. What he loved were the picnics and bird watching and botanizing. He walked up the street to see the inferno of The Homestead burn down on July 25, 1905. He said it was a 'sad but interesting sight. Shows how dangerous these frame houses are. In three hours, nothing remained.'"
And Durand loved sports. He became involved with the cricket team, which at the time only included the British servants. He played tennis and golf. He enjoyed a good hunt and was a horseman. His photo album, Gilder said, included numerous photos of local sporting events, including a softball game in which his daughter, Josephine, and Evelyn Sloane, were members.
Durand would spend the rest of his days trying to figure out what went wrong. It seems his love for sports and Lenox were the cause of his demise.
His successor, Sir Esme Howard, according to Gilder, would later learn that Durand was recalled because of his "incompatibility" with President Theodore Roosevelt. Durand's absence in Washington had been noticed by a president who liked to command the attention of his ambassadors.
Built in 1886 as the summer home of Dr. Francis Parker Kinnicutt and Eleonora Kissel Kinnicutt, Deepdene is the only Berkshire cottage known to be built by architect Bruce Price, father of social etiquette queen Emily Post, and designer of most of Tuxedo Park, N.Y., a gated Gilded Age community.
The Colonial Revival, with its sweeping porches and third-story balcony, overlooked the greens of the neighboring Lenox Country Club.
"The Kinnicuts were a great couple. By the time he was building this house, Dr. Kinnicut was an attending physician at Presbyterian Hospital and taught at Columbia Medical School," Gilder said. "You might say he was a society doctor."
He's patients included J. Pierpont Morgan, Morris Jessup, and Edith and Teddy Wharton. In fact, he was a driving force behind Edith's decision to abandon Newport in favor of the Berkshires.
His wife, Eleonora, was the force behind the New York City street cleaning commission.
"She was a great advocate in the 1890s when the machine politicians were failing to get the city cleaned up," Gilder said.
In later years, the Kinnicutts would spend the summer season in Maine, renting out the house, staying at Deepdene in the spring and fall instead. Their granddaughter, known as Sister Parish, the designer who worked with Jacqueline Kennedy at the White House, would later call her grandparents' decorating aesthetic at Deepdene and their other summer homes "appalling."
"She said they were filled with polar bear rugs and dreary pastoral paintings," Gilder said, with a laugh.
In the large living room, filled with eager listeners, Gilder's tales were brought to life not only by a slideshow filled with photos, but also by the surroundings — the past ever present in the woodwork, fireplaces, stairwells and doors.
Deepdene continues to remain a privately-owned residence.
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